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Reservoir of troubles 

Crime, anxiety abound near Rez Road.

click to enlarge ACCUSED: Shamar Womack (left) and Brandon Johnson.
  • ACCUSED: Shamar Womack (left) and Brandon Johnson.

Reservoir Road is a rollercoaster. Dropping over 300 feet in less than a mile — a shotgun-straight track of asphalt, seemingly cut through with more regard for as-the-crow-flies expedience than terrain — Reservoir features several stomach churning drops and rises on its way to connecting the exclusive neighborhoods along Cantrell to workaday Rodney Parham. Though there are speed limit signs on Reservoir — including those in the school zone around McDermott Elementary — it's a road that begs for the driver to put the pedal down and go for it.

The fortunes of the neighborhoods near Reservoir Road have risen and fallen precipitously in recent years as well. Even as the cost of single-family homes there rose with the rest of the housing market in the last decade, the area slowly emerged as a hotspot of crime. In what had been a very peaceful corner of Little Rock, back-fence gossip these days is likely to include whose garage or storage room was crow-barred open the previous week.

Most of it radiates out, police and residents believe, from the apartments — many of them renting weekly or monthly — along Reservoir Road.

Still, unless you happened to live close to Reservoir, crime there was mostly something you heard about from a friend of a friend. Then, late last year, a series of robbery/homicides connected to Reservoir Road shocked the city, and the problems there became the talk of the town. Though police now have suspects in those murders in custody, homeowners in the seemingly picture-perfect neighborhoods nearby are still worried, both for their safety and their property values. They want to see something done.

 

The crimes were appalling in their brutality and cold-bloodedness. On Nov. 15 last year, Armando Guerrero and his friend Andy Tapia were leaving a friend's apartment at 2000 Reservoir Road just after 3 a.m. when a slender black man dressed all in black approached them and asked to use a cell phone. When Tapia and Guerrero told him they didn't have a phone, the man pulled a pistol and put it to Tapia's head. Tapia and Guerrero surrendered their valuables and wallets. Nevertheless, as the suspect turned to run, he shot Guerrero once in the torso, wounding him.

The scene played out again two days later at Avondale Apartments at 1812 Reservoir. Jairo Castorena-Mendez was leaving his sister's house to go to work when he saw a man wearing gloves and a mask like the one seen in the movie “Scream” standing near the doorway of her apartment. Castorena-Mendez quickly shut the door, but the suspect fired through it, striking him in his right arm. Like Guerrero, Castorena-Mendez survived.

On Dec. 18, Carlos Larios was taking some items from the trunk of his car in the parking lot of Barrington Hills Apartments at 1221 Reservoir Road when a black man in black jeans and a puffy coat walked up, pulled a .380 automatic handgun, and told Larios, “come out your pockets.” Larios handed over his I-Pod and wallet. The man marched him back into his apartment at gunpoint, then shot him in the left hand before running away.

Larios survived, but the robber's next three victims would not be so lucky.

Around 10 minutes after Larios was shot, the robber came across Joseph Bittengle and his mother, Hazel, outside of Barrington Hills building No. 21. Joseph Bittengle, who was the director of Radiological Imaging Services at UAMS, lived at Barrington Hills. He was loading boxes into his truck, preparing to take his mother back home to Ohio, when the robber approached. The man brandished a pistol, and demanded Hazel Bittengle's purse. Moments after she gave it up, the robber shot her son point-blank in the stomach. Paramedics rushed Bittengle to the hospital, but he died of his injuries.

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